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Volatile Organic Compounds and their Impact on Human Health

volatile organic compounds health effects

Air pollution is definitely not healthy for us, but did you know that VOCs or volatile organic compounds have bad health effects on humans and all living creatures? That’s right – and we’ll discuss these toxic and harmful chemicals below.


Furthermore, we’ll shed a light on how these VOCs enter our homes and disrupt our daily lives. Last, but not least, we list down below some ways how we can help prevent these pollutants from reaching our indoor spaces so we can live healthier.


We simply can’t ignore the fact that VOCs do give out harmful health effects, which will affect not only us but also our loved ones and our quality of life. This is why we’re sharing some facts with you so that together, we can enjoy breathing clean and healthy indoor air.


Where do VOCs come from?

VOCs can come from different sources, in which most of which are commonly found in your home, as well as when you go outside. Here are some of them:

House Building Materials

Items and materials for building/finishing that contain VOCs include paint, varnishes, adhesives, flooring, sealants, caulking, certain carpet materials, and even paint strippers. However, paint is the most common VOC source, which is characterized by its bad smell.


Cleaning Products

This may include disinfectants, air fresheners, pesticides, and laundry care products. Chlorine is a common VOC found in household cleaners. Some laundry care products also have artificial fragrances that are actually volatile organic compounds disguised as something that our noses will agree to.


Personal Hygiene

Items that may have VOCs include deodorants and other personal care products. Some cosmetics may also have VOCs. However, this would only likely happen if the product is in spray or aerosol form, which is why most deodorants nowadays are roll-ons.



Certain furniture, such as bedding, may also have VOCs depending on how they were built. The most common VOC found in furniture is formaldehyde, especially if it is made with particle board, commonly known as plywood.


Kitchen and Cooking

Any appliance that uses fuel will likely emit VOCs in your home, which is why proper ventilation is important. Likewise, wood-burning stoves cause the same problem. Generally, if you have a stove that burns wood, whether indoors or outdoors, it will spread out VOCs in the area.


Office Supplies

Did you know that office printers, as well as photocopiers, emit VOCs in your indoor space? Aside from that, some permanent markers have toluene and xylene, which make them smell bad. Some VOCs are also found in art glues and adhesives.


VOCs Outdoors

When you go outside with your car, you are already contributing to the emission of VOCs in the air due to gasoline and diesel. Aside from that, factories that are still not using clean energy are likely contributing to air pollution due to their use of oil and gas.


What are the health effects of VOCs?

While we’ve discussed in a previous guide that volatile organic compounds have environmental effects, they also have harmful effects on the health of human beings. So, how do they compromise our health?


Irritation to our Senses

With frequent exposure to VOCs, such as being in a room with bad-smelling paint or using adhesives with toluene and xylene often, we can get irritation in our:


  • eyes
  • nose
  • throat
  • skin


With these irritations, we won’t be able to work properly in our day-to-day activities. Our focus will be less when it comes to dealing with school, work, or household chores. While irritations seem minor at first, they can worsen over time if not taken care of properly.


Headaches and Dizziness

Nausea, as well as frequent headaches, are common effects of poor air quality caused by VOCs. Aside from that, we may also lose coordination due to the awful smell of these harmful chemicals in the air. These effects will also greatly affect our daily tasks and decrease our productivity.


Potential Damage to Internal Organs

Just as VOCs can irritate and cause discomfort to our senses, they can also harm your internal organs. VOCs may cause damage to the following:


  • liver and kidney
  • central nervous system (your brain)


Carcinogenic Effects

When we say carcinogenic, it means that VOCs are likely to cause cancer. This fact is true not just for humans but also for animals. While not all volatile organic compounds were proven to be carcinogenic but are still harmful (such as toluene and xylene), some are, such as the following:


  • formaldehyde (from plywood furniture) – throat and nose cancer, leukemia
  • benzene (from gasoline) – myelogenic leukemia


How can I prevent VOCs from entering my home?

While VOCs seem difficult to ward off, there are ways to at least lessen the likelihood of breathing them in your living or working space. Here are ways to prevent VOCs from entering your home (or at least to keep them in small amounts):


Use an Air Purifier with Activated Carbon

Air purifiers that have an activated carbon filter (other than the HEPA filter) will clean up VOCs from the air you breathe. Just using the HEPA filter alone is not enough since it is only for dust and dander. Using an air purifier, VOCs are eliminated from the air with an activated carbon filter.


Did you know that VOCs are still present even at night? That’s because some mattress materials do contain VOCs (which you might inhale). That’s why one of the benefits of sleeping with an air purifier is to get rid of these toxic compounds so you can wake up and breathe easier.


Choose your Products Responsibly

As mentioned above, many household products, as well as building materials, do contain VOCs that can harm our health eventually. That’s why it pays to choose your products responsibly and if possible, go for the more natural or organic alternatives.


For instance, cleaning with vinegar and/or baking soda proves to be effective instead of resorting to bleach all the time. Choosing odorless or low-VOC paint for your room(s) will help in the long run – especially for people with asthma and/or allergies.


Ensure Proper Ventilation

Ventilation is considered one of the seven ways to keep the air clean, aside from having an air purifier and being responsible with your product usage at home. When your home or indoor space is properly ventilated, any harmful chemical that is likely trapped indoors will make its way out easily.


Proper ventilation is very important for kitchens since you cook there – especially if you still use fuel. If you currently have an exhaust for your cooking smoke, make sure it is not obstructed so that the awful smells will be blown away from your kitchen easily.


Check for Potential Gas Leaks

Gas leaks can potentially emit a lot of VOCs into the air and also make you feel uncomfortable. Furthermore, they are dangerous to our health to the point that we could have natural gas poisoning at high levels. Here’s how to check your indoor space for gas leaks:


  • Listen carefully for any hissing near your fuel source
  • Check if your house plants are suddenly dying
  • Use a gas leak detector
  • Check gas line connections for damage
    • Apply 1 tsp. dish detergent to 1 cup water to line connections and see if bubbles form
  • Check the stove flame (orange or red after turning on means a potential gas leak)



What VOCs do air purifiers remove?

Air purifiers can eliminate some of the most common VOCs at home, such as formaldehyde, toluene, and benzene. Just make sure that the air purifier you’re using has an activated carbon filter alongside its HEPA filter to take out VOCs from the air.


What type of paint doesn’t emit VOCs?

If you’re looking for paint that will be less toxic to the air you breathe, consider low-VOC or no-VOC. Low-VOC paint has less than 50 grams of VOCs while No-VOC paint has less than 5 grams. Both of them greatly contribute to lessening the harsh chemicals you breathe indoors.


What VOCs are found in printers and photocopiers?

Hydrocarbons, glycols, and the like are found in printers, which can create ground-level ozone when they react in the atmosphere. Ground-level ozone is dangerous to our health (can cause throat irritation) and to the environment (can affect plant growth).


Where do I store products that have potential VOCs?

If you can’t avoid using products that have VOCs, such as adhesives and the like, make sure they are stored away from your indoor space. Most people have a separate shed disconnected from the home/office for this matter – as long as the shed or storage area will be farther away and the products are properly sealed.



To wrap it up, volatile organic compounds do cause serious health effects in the long run. Remember that we can all do our part in eliminating or lessening VOCs from entering our homes and/or indoor spaces to ensure that we don’t suffer harmful health effects.


VOCs are dangerous when inhaled frequently. By being responsible with the products we choose, using air purifiers, checking for gas leaks, and properly ventilating our indoor areas, we can get rid of these toxic chemicals that negatively affect our air quality at home.

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